Stephen Curry, Michael Jordan and what comes next in the NBA playoffs
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Steph Curry is doing Jordan things, and now we get to see him tested.
The conference finals have arrived, so before this goes any further, let me confess something I've been holding back all year long: I watch Steph Curry and think about Michael Jordan. This feels blasphemous, but I can't fight it anymore. There have been stylistic imitations (Kobe), and equally outrageous talents (LeBron), but Steph nails the spectacle that made MJ different. He leaves everyone in disbelief on a such consistent basis that disbelief is now part of the routine.
That Blazers overtime win last week was just another reminder that Steph is operating on a different frequency. In Portland, as soon it became clear he was healthy, even when the Blazers were ahead, you knew that Curry would come through and Golden State would win. Then it went to overtime, Curry came out and scored 17 points in what felt like 90 seconds, and it was over, and everyone needed oxygen.
After not playing for two weeks, he finished with 38 points for the game, and 25 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, on 10-of-14 shooting. By this point I've seen enough Warriors games to expect outbursts like this, but every time Curry goes off, I still can't believe we get to watch it happen.
"The similarity [with Michael Jordan] is the awe-inspiring plays, the jaw-dropping plays." Steve Kerr on Stephen Curry— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 10, 2016
I'm not saying he's on Jordan's level historically—he'd have to keep this going for another 10 years to get there—but he's the first player in decades who give us that same feeling that gave me when I was 12 years old. It's a combination of inevitability and pure, stupid disbelief.
But there's a difference between this kind of disbelief and not believing at all, and that brings us to the critics. For the past year or so, as Curry's staked his claim as the best player on the planet, there's been a section of the basketball establishment that politely acknowledges what he's accomplished without really showing reverence for any of it. It was actually LeBron James who did the best job capturing the spirit of this.
"I think there's a lot of valuable guys in our league that adds value to their team," James said last week of Curry's MVP. "I think he definitely deserved it. You look at Steph's numbers, he averaged 30, he led the league in steals, he was 90-50-40, and they won 73. So, I don't, do you have any debate over that, really, when it comes to that award? I think sometimes the word 'valuable' or best player of the year, you can have different results. When you talk about most 'valuable' then you can have a different conversation."
It was a very carefully worded compliment that concedes absolutely nothing beyond impressive stats, and I don't blame LeBron for this. Blind reverence would be weirder coming from him. But it's the same kind of feint praise Curry's been getting from basketball royalty for 18 months.
To his credit, Curry is done being diplomatic about it, and he didn't hesitate to respond to the subtext of this. "I've gotten really good at ignoring people," he said of LeBron. "That's been the theme of the last two years."
This is probably the right attitude for everyone. First of all, whatever his peers think, Curry is one of the most universally popular athletes of the last 20 years. (Again, since Jordan.) If America's youth could vote for President, they'd vote to abolish democracy and make Steph Curry king. Instead, he'll finish this season and probably spend the summer golfing with the President. This is his world. Focusing on the 5% of America that remains skeptical, or doesn't praise him enough, seems like a waste of energy.
None of this is new, either. Almost every star who's ever owned the NBA has faced some version of the ritual nitpicking that Steph's facing now. Jordan didn't pass enough and he couldn't win his way. Shaq didn't care enough. LeBron wasn't clutch and too passive. Steph doesn't play defense, he wouldn't be doing this 25 years ago, this only works in Golden State, etc. All of this skepticism is easy to ignore, and most of it will burn away as the years pass and everyone adjusts to a Curry as a generational superstar. In the meantime, who cares?
There's just one criticism I care about, because it accidentally forces everyone to realize what's so great about the Curry era. It was about the unanimous MVP, and it came from Tracy McGrady last week, and you have probably seen it a hundred times by now. "For him to get this unanimously," McGrady said, "It just tells you how watered down our league is. When you think of MJ, Shaq...I mean, those guys really played against top notch competition."
First, let's pause to note how crazy it is to see Tracy McGrady become part of the NBA's old–school establishment. It makes me feel a thousand years old. Just yesterday he was going off the backboard at the All-Star Game and living on Planet Hoops.
More importantly: he's absurdly wrong about this. Shaq had two great teams to play against throughout his reign in L.A.—the Blazers and the Kings—and beyond that, most of his competition played the role of Chris Dudley. The Spurs didn't have their Big Three yet, and nobody else had talent that could touch what the Lakers possessed.
Jordan had wars in the late-80s, but by the time he hit his prime and started winning titles, Magic and Bird were in their twilight, Isaiah Thomas had blown out his knee, and nobody ever really filled the superstar vacuum they left behind. How many historically great players did Jordan beat in the 90s? I'm sure those Bulls teams would've beaten whoever they played, but there just weren't many great options. Jordan was playing Patick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, a young Sonics team, and then the Jazz, who were like a smarter version of today's Clippers.
None of this is to single out T-Mac—I love T-Mac—but any response to what he said highlights the most important difference between that era and this one. While Jordan was head and shoulders above almost everyone he played against, it's not true for Steph.
Even if you think Curry's putting himself in the Jordan/Larry Bird conversation, Kevin Durant is going down in history, too. Russell Westbrook won't be on the same level as Durant, but he's the Iverson to a new generation. LeBron is just as dominant and historically incredible as Curry, but in different ways.
Meanwhile, the Warriors have been amazing, but their margin for error is still slimmer than you'd expect for the most dominant team in history. They won 73 games this year, but think about how many games they stole in the final minute. They definitely should have lost in Oklahoma City in February. And they won a title last year, but had Game 1 of the Finals gone a little differently, they also could've been down 3-0 to a beat-up Cavs team and LeBron in superhero mode.
None of that's meant to criticize, but rather to contextualize. What's great about the Steph Curry era is that he's even better than the hype suggests, but so is everyone else.
Durant and Westbrook and the Thunder just turned the 67-win Spurs into the Hawks. The Cavs have never looked better, and LeBron is still great. And if you can appreciate exactly what's happening on all sides, the NBA playoffs look like a fever dream full of ego and legacies and future legends who all think that Steph Curry is getting too much credit.
Now they will have a chance prove it, and Curry will have the chance to prove them all wrong. This isn't the Jordan era, because it might be more fun.